For West Virginia's next opponent, LSU, secondary is primary

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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- A simple question was delivered via text message to West Virginia wide receivers coach Shannon Dawson this week: Are your guys ready?

Well-asked.

West Virginia's passing game steadily has improved from curiosity to remarkable machine in the throw-first attack employed by the Mountaineers this season.

Saturday, No. 2 LSU brings the nation's 19th-ranked pass defense to Morgantown, featuring five defensive backs who lead the team in tackles.

"These guys are faster than the guys we've played against," said Dawson. "They're going to eat up some more ground. In turn, we have to play faster. Probably going to be a little bit of less space than we're used to. But bottom line is you've got to be fired up for the chance to play 'em. If they're one of the top defenses in America, then we want to play 'em."

The arm of quarterback Geno Smith and good pass protection aside, the Mountaineers' best weapon in the passing game is that no single receiver carries the load.

Last Saturday at Maryland, three receivers gained more than 100 yards each. Nine players have caught passes in each of the three games.

Tavon Austin may be the player with the biggest game-breaking ability. The gap is not particularly wide after him.

Austin leads the team with 20 receptions, Ivan McCartney follows with 17, Stedman Bailey has 15 and Devon Brown 10.

"I feel like we all help each other out and get open," McCartney said. "We open up each other. I've watched their corners -- they're very, very talented and physical. But I think we can match that."

Austin caught 11 passes for 112 yards last week after coming off finger surgery and said he is fully recovered, feels no pain and is ready to go.

"My old coach in high school used to say 'Big players make big plays in big games,' " said Austin. "We played them last year, it wasn't that fast. We're fast, too."

The Tigers secondary is anchored by cornerback Tyrann Mathieu, who leads the team with 24 tackles, including three for losses. Safety Brandon Taylor has 17 tackles and corner Morris Claiborne (13).

The group helped LSU amass 15 tackles for losses against Mississippi State last week and has not given up a touchdown in the past eight quarters.

It's going to take everything West Virginia's offense can muster with little margin for error.

"You've got to take advantage of the little space that you have," said head coach Dana Holgorsen. "They're good, talented and rarely out of position. We're going to have to throw to receivers that are covered and run into people that are filling gaps. ... The tight space that we'll have offensively, we'll have to take advantage of it."

The Mountaineers players came across as confident this week, barely blinking at the stats their opponent has amassed.

"They're smart, very physical and have talent all across the board. But we do, too," said McCartney. "It'll be a battle. It's gonna be a Mayweather-Ortiz type fight."

As for the question: "Are your guys ready?"

Dawson said he is eager to see the progression of the week and what happens when the lights come up Saturday night.

"You never can tell," he said. "But I think I know how they're gonna perform. Let's see how good they are."


Jenn Menendez: jmenendez@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1959.


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